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Artist Boggs leaves storied legacy

(Original Caption) Artist J.S.G. Boggs, holds $20 bill he painted, along with actual $20 bill (Photo by Charles O'Rear/Corbis via Getty Images)

Artist J.S.G. Boggs, holds $20 bill he painted, along with actual $20 bill (Photo by Charles O’Rear/Corbis via Getty Images)

Renowned money artist J.S.G. Boggs recently passed away. He was age 62. According to news reports, his body was discovered in a Tampa hotel by police on Jan. 29. No known cause of death was given.

During his career as a money artist, which began in 1984, he regularly tendered his skillfully drawn “Boggs bills” for goods and services ranging from hotel stays to dinners, and even the purchase of a motorcycle. Today his artworks, which include wall-size depictions of currency, are held in several major art collections, including the Smithsonian.

“I wanted to paint something real and I began to paint numerals, but as time went by I realized that numbers aren’t real. They are abstract as well…,” he told Robert R. Van Ryzin for a front-page story in the February 1991 issue of Bank Note Reporter detailing how Boggs came to his craft.

“On the day this sort of came to a climax [in 1984], I was in a cafe in Chicago. I was making a drawing on a napkin. It just started out as a drawing of a No. 1 and wound up being a drawing of a very abstracted dollar. And I wound up spending it with the waitress at the cafe. I had had coffee and doughnuts for 90 cents and she wanted it very badly, so she took the dollar that I drew on the napkin as payment.”

She also gave him the change and a receipt – the first in a long line of what would become known as “transactions.”

BoggsBill

A Project Pittsburgh note by J.S.G. Boggs. It shows the U.S. Supreme Court, not the Treasury, as would appear on a real $10 Federal Reserve Note.

By the late 1980s Boggs’ transactions, which were at first performed with hand-drawn notes (later changing to printed versions from a hand-drafted master) had gained notoriety in the art world and among art collectors who wanted to obtain complete transactions, i.e., the Boggs drawing, receipt and change.

In 1988, a two-part article by Lawrence Weschler in The New Yorker detailed that Boggs had developed a set of rules, which he followed for those collectors who wanted to obtain examples of his art. First, his exact-size drawings were never sold outright, but only spent in exchanges with willing participants who would provide Boggs with a receipt and change. He would then wait 24 hours before releasing the information to a collector as to where the bill had been spent. He would also sell the receipt and change, which in Weschler’s example, brought nearly $500 for a $100 dinner transaction.

At the time of Weschler’s article, Boggs had a waiting list of 18 collectors who wanted examples of his work, and a complete transaction was trading, according to Weschler, for $3,000.

Boggs’ spending of mostly uniface notes with realistic representations of U.S. and foreign paper money often got him into trouble with government authorities.

In 1986, just before the opening of an exhibit of his works at the Young Unknowns Gallery in London, the gallery was raided by Scotland Yard agents, and Boggs was charged with counterfeiting British notes. Boggs was later found not guilty.

In March 1989 he was similarly charged in Australia after tendering a hand-drawn $100 Australian bank note for a dinner. He was acquitted and the note, receipt, change, arrest sheet and evidence receipt later became part of “Encore (Dinner with Ann),” a Boggs grouping.

In the early 1990s, he came to the attention of numismatists through a brief mention of a Tampa exhibit of his works in a Florida hobby publication, which led to Van Ryzin’s extensive interview and profile, appearing in the February 1991 issue of Bank Note Reporter and the March 5, 1991, issue of Numismatic News.

At the time, Boggs’ exhibit, “J.S.G. Boggs Smart Money (Hard Currency),” was running at the Tampa Museum of Art. Boggs ran into trouble for that exhibit as well, as U.S. Secret Service agents required that Boggs’ images of U.S. paper money in the exhibit catalog be shown only at legal reproduction sizes, namely 150 percent above actual size or 75 percent or less than actual size.

By the mid-1990s, Boggs was regularly attending numismatic gatherings, creating his Boggs bills for some of them, such as the Florida United Numismatists, the American Numismatic Association and a Bank Note Reporter subscription premium.

In 1993, while in residence at Carnegie Mellon University and preparing for the inauguration of “Project Pittsburgh,” an attempt to spend $1 million in “Boggs bills,” federal agents arrived at his apartment. After producing warrants, they searched his truck and spent three hours looking for “evidence” and “contraband” in his studio and an additional 2-1/2 hours rummaging through materials at his office at Carnegie Mellon University. In all they confiscated nearly 500 items, estimated by Boggs at the time to carry a minimum value of $100,000. Boggs would go to court in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to recover his items.

Even though one could marvel at the intricacies of Boggs drawings, it was hard to imagine that anyone could be fooled by them. Most of Boggs’ notes had no back design – though the backs sometimes displayed his thumbprint as an anti-counterfeiting device. The notes carry a variety of bogus inscriptions as well, ranging from “unit of Bohemia” to Boggs own signature as “Secret of the State.”

Others, including the Project Pittsburgh notes that concerned the Secret Service, have the incorrect design for the bill’s purported denomination. The U.S. Supreme Court, which is shown on the Project Pittsburgh note, does not appear on the $10 Federal Reserve Note or any Federal Reserve Note.

Boggs leaves behind no known immediate survivors.

 

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News Express. >> Subscribe today

 

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